Grants Pass High School Protest – Student Response

On Tuesday, November 16th, around 300 students at Grants Pass High School participated in a walkout protesting the school board’s decision to reinstate two transphobic educators who were fired in July. Media coverage up to this point has focused unduly on the actions of a few counter protesters and largely ignored student voices. The following article, which was written in collaboration with GPHS students, is published to counteract this.

On March 25th, 2021, two staff members at North Middle School, assistant principal Rachel Damiano and science teacher Katie Medart, released a video launching what they called the “I Resolve” movement. It proposes policy changes that would define sex as binary, force trans students to use “anatomically-correct” bathrooms and changing rooms, require parental approval for staff to use their correct name and pronouns, and even then allow teachers to refuse if they didn’t feel like it.

If implemented, these policies would put many students in a position where their names and pronouns are not respected, out some students to others when they aren’t ready, and put LGBTQ+ youth in dangerous situations. The “resolutions” proposed by Medart and Damiano are directly harmful to LGBTQ+ students, especially those who are trans and non-binary.

The video’s release was met by shock, anger and mobilization by allies in the Grants Pass community. Parents, educators, students and community members formed a coalition called “I Affirm” to counteract the pain caused by the I Resolve movement and stand in solidarity with LGBTQ+ students by hosting rallies and meeting with students to help them organize further action. The group and the larger community also voiced their concerns about Damiano and Medart in letters and phone calls to the district.

In response, the Grants Pass School District board launched an investigation into Damiano and Medart, culminating on July 15th in a 4-3 vote in favor of firing them for improper use of school time and resources. Celebrations were short lived, however, because on November 9th, they were both reinstated after a board member switched his vote.

This decision was like a slap in the face to LGBTQ+ students. Saul Christensen, a transgender freshman at GPHS, was appalled. “When I heard about the reinstatement of Katie and Rachel it was like a huge punch in the gut. My friends, I, and other community members had worked so hard for months to just get the school board to consider firing them. It was so sudden too. We didn’t really have any time to stop them or react beforehand.”

Saul was joined in his frustration by many students across campus, including senior Evan Tucker. “When I heard how Mr. Kuhlman voted, I was not surprised; but I was still angry. I had a feeling it was going to go this way from the pressure put on him from his church, and from the big smiles on Damanio and Medart’s faces as they came out of the executive session. I was just met with so much disappointment. They had let the student body down, and we knew there was something we had to do about it.”

What they would do about it was decided the next day at a Pride Club meeting, where Evan collaborated with Deenie Bulyalert, a junior and the president of Pride Club, to plan a student walkout in protest of the reinstatement. They distributed hundreds of flyers calling on students to support their LGBTQ+ peers. “If they will not give us a voice, then we will fight for one”, the flyers proclaimed, and encouraged wearing purple to show support.

“From there, things took off”, said Evan. “Our message of protest spread quickly and sparked additional protests at South Medford High School, South Middle School, and North Middle School, where Damiano and Medart had previously worked.” Students at the Gladiola High School campus in Grants Pass also walked out in support. On the day of the protest, spirits were high. Hundreds of students gathered in front of the school, along with dozens of supportive parents and allies in the community. 

Saul was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. “Seeing so many people at the protest was crazy, and not what I was expecting at all. It actually made me a little emotional, but I’m sure a lot of other people felt the same way. When I was walking through the hallways I could spot so many people wearing purple. I know that a lot of other people and allies participated in the walk out with knowledge they could easily be punished by their parents for it. So many people standing up for my community was really empowering, and I bet it was really shocking for the people against our cause too. They thought it would only be a small group of people, as did we, but I think it just goes to show how tightly knit we as youth are.”

Unfortunately, two adults from a local religious extremist group showed up to counterprotest. Evan was unsurprised. “While I was happy to see so many students coming outside, I was nervous seeing students unknowingly putting themselves at risk to the right-wing extremist group “Salt Shakers;” who would inevitably show up.”

The RV Saltshakers, as they call themselves, can be found around Southern Oregon and even in Eugene on the UO campus, with inflammatory signs; one reads, “OUR LIES, HATE, THEFT, GREED, LUST, PORN, FORNICATION, LGBTQ, ABORTION, AND ALL OTHER SIN EARN DEATH AND HELL. TRUST JESUS! BE SAVED!”; others have graphic, exaggerated depictions of aborted fetuses. They are generally disliked by everyone they interact with, and tend to be the type of people to go out of their way to harass high schoolers.

Saul has a theory for why the students were met with such hate. “I think that transphobes, older ones especially, see the sense of love and familial connection we have for one another and think, ‘Why am I not treated this way?’ That questioning of themself and the things they think they’re assured with then turns into a sort of jealousy. It brings on the kind of mentality that’s like, ‘If I can’t be happy with myself, then nobody can.’ The anger they feel also comes from how in tune we are with ourselves as trans people. We have a sort of connection with our own feelings that is so unique, and cisgender see that and feel envious from not being able to express their individuality in the same way we do. It’s a mean cycle of doubt, turned into resentment, turned into obsessive rage.”

The walkout was planned to end at 2:07pm when the bell rang for students to head back to 7th period, and at that time most students returned to class. Around that time, there were clashes between the adult salt shakers and students who stayed behind. The cops eventually got involved and arrested three teenagers: two GPHS students and a supporting community member. A student, who asked to stay anonymous, touched on these events.

“It is obviously not a secret that cops were at the protest and that some individuals got arrested. It frustrates me how the situation was handled because instead of making the counter-protesters leave, people who were instigating emotion and actions done by some students, the cops just stood there and did nothing. No action was taken by a cop until one minor inconvenience took place where a student or individual on the side of the LGBTQ+ students did something. It disheartened me that I was further dug into my idea that cops don’t respect us, and it frustrated me even more reading the news report that was released where an individual who was arrested was misgendered multiple times.

“I feel like I spent so long trying to give authority the benefit of the doubt, trying to understand where they are coming from, but watching your friends cry and feeling their pain, watching a protest that was meant to be peaceful get drowned because adults who are supposed to have your back didn’t want to do anything and instead went against you, felt like another piece of my childhood got taken away from me. Us students already had to acknowledge that the school board is not on our side due to the reinstatement, now we truly know that our whole community is against us during a time that we need the support the most.”

Despite the antagonism the students were met with, Saul was optimistic. “I’ve learned to not try to change the way people think, because above all else their stubbornness will stay with them until they’re on their deathbed and can’t remember anything else besides how they feel about people who are completely detached from society’s ‘normal’ lifestyle. I don’t think that hate like that can be reversed, but if I can be a part of encouraging others to be wholly themselves, that’s a reward that’s unique to everything else I’ve personally accomplished.”

Evan also felt the walkout was a success. “I know students felt heard, and that they mattered. It was powerful seeing so many people fight for what was right.” This feeling was shared by most students who participated, and plans are already underway for next steps.

“This isn’t the last time that students are going to fight for our voices,” says Deenie. “We have been quiet and silenced for too long, we are tired and we are not backing down without a fight. There are potential events that will take place at some point to stand in solidarity with LGBTQ+ youth. Students will continue to gather to talk about ways to make the schools safer for future and current students. Schools are institutions that kids are required to go to; whether or not we have to fight for the things we need, we will continue to pave our way through to create an environment that students truly want to be in.”

Students are asking for two kinds of support. First, people who want to support can email the school board members, to thank the ones who voted against reinstating Damiano and Medart (in bold below), and explain to those who voted for reinstatement the harmful impact that neglecting to follow school policy and not listening to the voices of students has in the district.

Scott Nelson – outhousedoc@gmail.com

Debbie Brownell – dbrownell@grantspass.k12.or.us

Brian DeLaGrange – bdelagrange@grantspass.k12.or.us

Gary Richardson – glrichardson@grantspass.k12.or.us

Cassie Wilkins – cwilkins@grantspass.k12.or.us

Todd Neville – tneville@grantspass.k12.or.us

Cliff Kuhlman – ckuhlman@grantspass.k12.or.us

Second, funds are being raised to help cover legal fees for students being charged with crimes for participating in the protest and bail money for the arrested community member. Donations should be made to @siskiyoumutualaid on Venmo, with the note “GPHS Solidarity”.

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